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All About the First, Second, and Third Person

All About the First, Second, and Third Person

Author: Johannah Bomster

This tutorial discusses the first, second, and third person.

Discussion and video clips on first, second, and third person.


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What is "person"?

In grammar, person refers to the nouns and pronouns that show who or what the sentence is about. 

  • When I am speaking of me, I use the first-person singular.
  • When I am speaking to you, I use the second person.
  • When I am speaking of him or her, I use the third-person singular.
  • When ​I am speaking to them, I use the first person singular to address the third person plural.  



We turn our attention to the first-person plural.

Generally, when I am talking about myself, I use the first-person singular. 

There are specific reasons a person might use the first-person plural to refer to only one individual. 

  • The "royal we," or the pluralis majestatis. 
  • The editorial "we." 
  • The authorial "we." 
  • The annoying "we." 

Since we generally refer to ourselves in the first-person singular, it sounds odd when an individual refers to him- or herself in the third person.

Suede, a contestant from Season 5 of "Project Runway" was notable for referring to himself in the third-person singular. This video cuts together a number of clips in which Suede discusses himself. If you look carefully, you can see the typical reaction others have to speakers who refer to themselves in the third person. If you listen carefully, you can hear Suede shift from third person to the first-person singular pronouns--this is a grammatical error known as a "shift in person."

If Suede is talking about himself, isn't that the first person?

It is reasonable to ask, "If Suede is talking about himself, isn't that the first person?"

The answer is simple: No, it isn't. It is third person. 

Here's how to tell:

  • The first person is limited to pronouns (e.g.,  IWeme, us).
  • Anything that doesn't fit in this category must be second person or third person. 
  • All nouns, even proper nouns, such as Suede's own name, are third person. 


You can check to see which person you are using by looking at the verb. If you replace the first person with the third person, or vice versa, you will see that the verb changes, like so:

  • I study grammar (first person pronoun and first person verb).
  • Suede studies grammar (proper noun with third person verb).
  • He studies grammar (third person pronoun and third person verb).

What about the second person?

It is rare to see the second person, you, used throughout a piece of writing, but there are a few exceptions. 

  • When providing written instructions about a process. 
  • The 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerny was both criticized and praised for being written in the second person. 
  • However, if you find yourself distracted by the second person in a piece of writing, it is likely that the writer has accidentally used the second person when the first or third person is correct. 

"You may ask yourself, 'Where is that large automobile?'"

The Talking Heads made effective use of the second person--you--in "Once in a Lifetime," from their 1981 album Remain in Light. How effective? National Public Radio selected "Once in a Lifetime" as one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century*.

When should I use the first person? When should I use the third person?

Another reasonable question is "How do I know which person I should use in my writing?"

  • Sometimes the purpose of the writing will dictate which person should be used. You will know when you first start writing. Simply take a look at what you've written and check which pronouns you've used. For most communication, trust yourself that you've used the correct person. 
  • Sometimes, an instructor will indicate which person should be used.
  • Sometimes, the field or industry has a particular style. For example, it is common to see scientific research reports  written in the third person. One explanation for this is that the third person moves the focus of the writing from the I to the actual results of the research. 
  • It can feel clunky and unnatural to write in the third person, because it is clunky and unnatural. We are used to speaking of ourselves in the first person--which is why Suede's use of the third person is so notable. We humans share our thoughts, our ideas, and our experiences, and the first person is the natural choice when doing that. 
  • If you are required to use the third person, know that it has a long history. You can improve your  comfort level and your skill in writing by purposefully identifying the person in the reading you are doing throughout the day.  Once you spot something written in the third person, take the time to read it carefully to see how the writer achieved--or failed to achieve--success. 


  • Person is a grammatical term. 
  • Most of the time, our  innate grammar skills guide us in choosing the correct person.
  • We can all strengthen our skills in distinguishing first, second, and third person by listening for the pronouns and identifying them by person.